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Slavery Old and New

Comparing Early America with Biblical Times

ABSTRACT: Many Christians, keenly aware of the evils of early modern slavery, have suggested that the slavery mentioned in the New Testament was far more humane than its American counterpart. Yet the historical data suggests that Greco-Roman slavery could be just as oppressive and abusive as the later system — and in some ways even more so. Nevertheless, the Bible’s relative silence on ancient slavery need not be taken as an endorsement of injustice. In an indirect way, the biblical writers attack central pillars of the Greco-Roman system, such that by the close of the New Testament canon, the foundations of abolition were already in place.

As a believer in Christ and a professor of American history, there is no greater teaching dilemma I face than that of slavery and the Bible. At times, part of me dearly wishes there were an eleventh commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not own slaves.” That would make my job a lot easier. With such a commandment in hand, students and I could simply condemn slave-owning Christians, including evangelical heroes such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

But as sensitive students of Scripture have noted for centuries, there is no such eleventh commandment. Instead, there are household injunctions regarding the behavior of masters and slaves (Ephesians 6:5–9; Colossians 3:22–4:1). In the Pentateuch, there are laws about Israelites and their slaves, and the anticipation of a jubilee year in which slaves would be freed (Exodus 21:1–17; Leviticus 25:35–55). There is the exodus delivery of enslaved Israel from their Egyptian masters, and there are repeated prohibitions against “manstealing,” or kidnapping people and forcing them into slavery (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7; 1 Timothy 1:10). Then there’s the stirring note in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This truth is applied to all those who are “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27–28), which suggests that Paul expected slaves and free people to be treated equally in the body of Christ, at least with regard to baptism and other church practices. But we never quite get an indisputable ban on slavery itself.

As Christians who hold a high view of the authority of Scripture, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired every single word in the Bible. This implicitly means that he inspired the biblical authors to not say other things. The Bible is perfect in its parts, and perfect as a whole. We believe that every command, every historical account, and even every topic not covered resulted from the Lord’s sovereign design. But just as we may not understand what we’re supposed to gather from every passage (say, the story of the medium of Endor in 1 Samuel 28), we may not understand why the Lord did not include more explicit instructions about topics that seem awfully important.

Pro-choice critics might note, for example, the absence of a direct prohibition on abortion in the Bible, even though for pro-life Christians the ethical inference is inescapable from passages such as Psalm 139:13–14 (“You knitted me together in my mother’s womb”). Slavery is a similarly perplexing example. The practice of slavery has been one of the great moral abominations in history. Why doesn’t Scripture denounce it directly?

How Bad Was Biblical Slavery?

Evangelicals routinely answer that the slavery in the Bible was much different — and more humane — than the chattel slavery practiced in America (and much of the Western Hemisphere) from the 1500s to the 1800s. Of course, we generally know more about the practice of slavery the farther forward you proceed in time. It is a bit artificial to compare the slave regulations in the Pentateuch, to those in Paul’s letters, to the vast amount of historical information we have about slavery in the early modern world. But if you consider what Exodus tells us about slavery, there are reasonable signs to suggest that ancient Hebrew slavery was a less totalizing institution than what it became for enslaved people in the 1700s in South Carolina, Jamaica, or Brazil. There was an end point to a slave’s term of service, for instance. Exodus 21 suggests that slaves would be freed by the Israelites in their seventh year, and that people became enslaved for life only by choice (vv. 2–6). Exodus also shows great sensitivity to the wrong kind of slavery, as seen in the “ruthless” enslavement the Israelites experienced in Egypt, and from which God delivered them.

“Enslaved people during both eras, who were typically slaves for life, suffered routine and sometimes unspeakable abuse.”

In this essay, however, I want to focus chiefly on the differences between ancient Greco-Roman slavery and the kind in colonial and antebellum America. Again, the comparison is somewhat speculative because of the smaller amount of source material we have for ancient slavery. The source record is so limited that even brief references, like those in Paul’s letters, serve as major points of reference for ancient slavery and the early Christian view of it. Scholars have access to dizzying amounts of statistics about slavery and the slave trade in the early modern world, however. Resources such as the unparalleled “Slave Voyages” database provide information about more than twelve million embarkations of captives and enslaved people in the Atlantic World alone.1 To be sure, many of these enslaved people lack much personal information, and may just appear as numbers on a chart. But that’s still better than utter documentary silence.

Historians have devoted countless articles and books to myriad aspects of Atlantic World slavery, including the type of farm implements manufactured for slaves in Europe; the incredible death rates in the Caribbean sugar colonies; the different labor arrangements for slaves in the American north, mid-Atlantic, and lower south colonies; and much more. I write as a typical historian who knows more about one of these time periods (in my case, slavery in America) than the other (ancient slavery).

Enslaved and Exploited

Even a cursory study suggests that enslaved people during both eras, who were typically slaves for life, suffered routine and sometimes unspeakable abuse from captors, owners, and (in the case of enslaved prostitutes) clients. Of course, in either era it was possible that an individual slave might have a “good” master who was less personally abusive, or even a master who took seriously Paul’s injunction to do good to all people and to “stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9). Surely there were masters in both eras who provided adequate food, shelter, and old-age care for their slaves, and did not subject them to indiscriminate physical and sexual abuse or torture.

But the threat of abuse and torture always loomed. With a mere signature on a bill of sale, an enslaved person in America could find himself wrenched from a spouse or children, never to see them again, or marched hundreds or thousands of miles into the Deep South, or turned over to a master or driver with a reputation as a “slave breaker.” Examples of such turmoil and violence are well-known in American slave narratives, such as those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Candid diaries by masters, such as Virginia’s William Byrd II and Jamaica’s Thomas Thistlewood, are less well-known among the general public, perhaps because their rampant sexual assaults on female slaves, and the types of lurid punishments they describe, including forcing unruly slaves to eat human excrement, make them difficult texts to teach in grades earlier than college.

Violence and sexual abuse were rife in the slave system of the ancient world, too. As described by historian Kyle Harper in his extraordinary book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity,2 slavery was especially common in the Roman Empire. Out of a total Roman imperial population of some seventy million, roughly seven to ten million people were enslaved. Free males sexually exploiting male and female slaves was an essential feature of Roman slavery. It was widely assumed that free men in the Roman world had virtually unrestricted access to slaves and enslaved prostitutes for sexual release. Such predation was viewed almost as akin to access to food and water, the mere satisfaction of natural urges. As long as free men did not exploit social equals (especially married women) for sex, there was no cultural shame attached to their exploits, whether with men or women. Enslaved prostitutes were maybe the most exploited people of all, since even fellow slaves could visit brothels.

The threat of physical abuse and whippings was ubiquitous in American slavery, but what about sexual abuse? Were William Byrd and Thomas Thistlewood outliers? On this score, the triumph of Christian mores about sexuality may have actually made sexual abuse less endemic (though still common) in the early modern slave system than in the ancient one. Same-sex encounters did happen in colonial America, but they were rare and obviously fell under the stigma of the prohibition against such encounters in Scripture. Likewise, even married men of nominal Christian commitment knew that preying sexually on women (free or enslaved) was wrong, so evidence for such acts is usually indirect, or appears in private writings that a master never expected to go public (like those of Byrd or Thistlewood). It was not unusual for a widowed white man to enter a longer-term but private sexual relationship with an enslaved woman, as is widely believed to have been the case with Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

Class Versus Race

One stark difference between ancient and early modern slavery was the role of race. Romans took many slaves from among people they conquered, such as the Thracian soldier, gladiator, and future rebel Spartacus. Slavery was a deeply class-based system in Rome, as poor people often sold their children into slavery out of desperation. But “race” in the modern sense played a peripheral role in the ancient context. Conquered foreigners might seem like an obvious source of slaves, but there was little attempt to argue that any “races” of people were more fit for slavery than others.

“There doesn’t seem to be much merit in the argument that ancient Greco-Roman slavery was more humane.”

Slavery’s beginnings in the Americas were not that different from the ancient system. The earliest sources of slavery, beginning with Columbus’s expeditions to the New World, were the conquered native peoples of the Americas. Native American enslavement remained an important (though often forgotten) part of American slavery, as did the indentured servitude of poor white people. By the late 1600s, however, the English in America began to turn to the enslavement of massive numbers of people from West Africa. This set the stage for race to come to the fore in American colonial law, as slowly “black” and “white” racial differences began to replace the earlier terminology of “heathen” and “Christian” peoples, the former suited for slavery, the latter not. Some Christians even discovered a basis for racial slavery in the (ludicrous) exegesis of the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9. More careful Bible interpreters, even ones who were proslavery, steered clear of such exotic readings, however.

On balance, there doesn’t seem to be much merit in the argument that ancient Greco-Roman slavery was more humane than that which appeared in the early modern world. Both featured physical and sexual abuse, though if anything the sexual exploitation in the ancient system may have been more overt and systemic. Teenage male slaves (for instance) suffered open sexual predation from free Roman men in ways that had no direct American parallel. The early modern system added race prejudice to the abusive nature of slavery, making it even easier for whites to dehumanize enslaved African or Native American people, and ultimately to treat enslaved African Americans as “chattel,” or transferable pieces of property, in the enormously lucrative trade of the Cotton Kingdom.

Why Doesn’t Scripture Say More?

So I don’t think the explanation of the New Testament’s silence based on ancient slavery’s relative moderation is persuasive. The lack of comment of Scripture on the evil of slavery itself may not become fully explicable to us in this life. It is hardly a cop-out to remind ourselves of the Lord’s caution to his people in Isaiah 55:8: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Yet there remain some caveats that can somewhat mitigate our perplexity on the matter. One is that the Scripture does attack certain essential aspects of slavery as practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. Second is that at the time of the New Testament letters, Christians could hardly imagine changing the laws of society at large, since they were a small and often-persecuted sect that many outsiders regarded as a bizarre cult. Few could have imagined a post-Constantinian order in which Christian morality became the law of the land.

First, the Old and New Testaments do forbid practices that stood at the heart of the institution of slavery in its ancient and modern forms. Aside from the general prohibitions on wanton violence by Christians, the most obvious stricture was that against the practice of “manstealing,” which is condemned in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and 1 Timothy. Manstealers were human traffickers who kidnapped people in order to sell them as slaves. Manstealing was a known but prohibited practice in the ancient world. It was more common among slave traders in West Africa (both Africans and Europeans), if only because of the larger scale of the Atlantic slave trade.

English translations use a variety of words for Paul’s term “menstealers” (KJV) in 1 Timothy 1:10, including the English Standard Version’s broad rendering of it as “enslavers.” If Paul here meant not just to indict kidnappers, but slave traders generally, that prohibition would have condemned much of the original circumstances of enslavement in both ancient and modern slaving economies. It would not have touched the status of those born into slavery, and African Americans born into slavery became the norm after the United States banned further imports of slaves in 1808. Yet it would be hard for any slave owner to plausibly suggest that he had nothing to do with slave trafficking, especially if he had ever bought a slave at auction.

In a more subtle move against slavery, Paul denounced extramarital erotic encounters, including same-sex liaisons and recourse to prostitutes, in passages such as Romans 1:26–27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. For Paul, these sorts of nonmarital encounters represented porneia, or fornication, and they were strictly forbidden for Christians. When you realize, as Kyle Harper demonstrates, that ancient world same-sex encounters were commonly between a free man and a male slave, and that prostitutes were often enslaved women, it becomes evident that Paul was forbidding sexual behavior that was essential to imperial Roman slavery.3 Going to prostitutes, and sexually preying on male slaves, was common and not shameful in pagan Roman culture. But Paul was saying to the new Christian churches that they should not countenance such behavior among believers. Especially in the uninhibited sexual climates of Rome and Corinth, telling people not to engage in homosexual acts and not to visit prostitutes was close to condemning what slavery itself entailed.

“The Old and New Testaments do forbid practices that stood at the heart of the institution of slavery.”

The New Testament’s ethical codes tended to assume that the world was fallen and deeply hierarchical, and those codes carved out an alternative sphere of holy living for believers living as strangers in that world. Many in the ancient Roman Empire found Paul’s sexual ethics nearly unfathomable, partly because they fundamentally challenged the sexual norms of a slave-based society. The church’s situation changed dramatically after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, when suddenly Christians could imagine having a dominant influence on the mores and laws of the empire. That set certain Christians to thinking about slavery in a more comprehensive way. Indeed, Constantine himself legally expanded the power of churches to emancipate enslaved people in a congregation.4

Roots of Abolition

The Bible may not give us that elusive eleventh commandment, but given the bent of the Bible’s ethical codes, it is hardly surprising that one of the first writers — and perhaps the first writer — ever to challenge slavery as an institution was not a pagan Greek or Roman, but a Christian church father, Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory, born around the same time as Constantine’s death in the 330s, raged against the sinful presumption of enslaving people created in the image of God. “If God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?” he wrote. As Kyle Harper notes, it is “no small distinction to be the earliest human to have left an argument for the basic injustice of slavery.”5

This welcome development — a Christian argument against slavery itself — was a natural outgrowth of the ethics of the Bible, the doctrine of the imago Dei, and the beginnings of Christian thought about what a post-pagan Christian society might become. Christian thought was never uniformly antislavery, of course, until long after legalized slavery vanished in the 1800s. But the sources of antislavery thought were always powerfully Christian.

  1. See https://www.slavevoyages.org/

  2. Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). 

  3. Harper, From Shame to Sin, 26–27. 

  4. Noel Lenski, “Constantine and Slavery: Libertas and the Fusion of Roman and Christian Values” in Atti dell’Accademia Romanistica Costantiniana XVIII, ed. S. Giglio (Perugia: Aracne, 2012), 251. 

  5. Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” in Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives, ed. Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 1:134.